Cellist Yo-Yo Ma to Graduates: ‘Use Power Thoughtfully’

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Under sunny skies, Ma gave a musical address to a commencement audience topping 11,000.

Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello on stage
Yo-Yo Ma concludes his commencement address with a Catalonian folk song. (Photo by Eli Burakian ’00) 

“You will be powerful,” renowned cellist Yo-Yo Ma told Dartmouth’s Class of 2019 at Sunday’s commencement. And he asked them to promise themselves “that when you find your power, you will use it thoughtfully, with restraint, and with good intention.”

Ma gave a musical commencement address on a balmy, picture-perfect Sunday to some 11,000 students, families, and friends gathered on the Green. President Philip J. Hanlon ’77 conferred 1,928 bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees in undergraduate and graduate programs from the Geisel School of MedicineGuarini School of Graduate and Advanced StudiesThayer School of Engineering, and the Tuck School of Business.

Striking an upbeat note as the festivities began, Ma informally congratulated—with high fives—a number of graduating seniors as he and the rest of the academic procession walked to the stage, led by bagpiper Joshua Marks ’96. Joyous music throughout the morning was provided by the Dartmouth College Wind Ensemble and the Dartmouth College Glee Club.

Shelbi Fitzpatrick ’19 and Poli Sierra-Long ’19, co-presidents of Native Americans at Dartmouth, gave welcoming remarks about Dartmouth’s founding as an institution to educate Native American youth. Noting that only 19 Native American students had graduated before the 13th president of the College, John Kemeny, took office, Fitzpatrick said that under President Kemeny, Dartmouth rededicated itself to its original mission “and has matriculated over a thousand Native American students—more than all the other Ivy League colleges,” which brought a round of applause from the crowd.

In his address, Ma spoke about the power of culture to build empathy, transcend political differences, and counteract the “primal, addictive pursuit of conquest.”  

“Culture resists reduction and constantly reminds us of the beautiful complexities that humans are made of, both individually and collectively,” he said.  “The stories we tell; the music we make; the experiments and buildings we design. Everything that helps us to understand ourselves, to understand one another, to understand our environment—culture.

Ma told the  story of a pilgrimage he recently made to the home of the late Catalan cellist Pablo Casals, “a great advocate for human dignity,” for whom Ma played as a 7-year-old.

“Casals always thought of himself as a human being first, as a musician second, and only then a cellist,” Ma said. “It’s a philosophy that I’ve held close to my heart for most of my own life.”

Ma urged the graduates to “practice your humanity daily. Practice that truth. Let it power your decisions.” In that way, he said, “You will soar. You will fly. And you will help others to soar and fly.”

Then he played Casals’ favorite folk song from Catalonia, “a song about freedom, about the freedom of birds when they take flight, soaring across borders.”

(See the video of Ma’s commencement speech.)

In his farewell to the Class of 2019, “with the incomparable Yo-Yo Ma in the house,” President Hanlon highlighted creativity at Dartmouth.

“The arts have been alive at Dartmouth from the earliest days of the College,” he said. “Our very first commencement exercises in 1771 featured an anthem composed and set to music and performed by the graduating class.” But even though “composing an original song is no longer a requirement for earning your degree,” Hanlon said engagement with the arts is “integral to the experience of every Dartmouth student, not just those who actively create art.”

That was true, he said, about his own time as a Dartmouth student.

“I grew up in a small mining town in the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. A rough and tumble place, my town had no shortage of taverns but not a single movie theater,” Hanlon recalled.

When he arrived on campus in the fall of 1973, Hanlon said, movies were “a magnificent unexplored terrain, and the film society became my obsession.” The arts at Dartmouth “opened my mind to entirely new ways of thinking, helped me see the world as it is and imagine the world as it could be.”

His advice to the Class of 2019: “Never relinquish your paintbrush, your pen, your musical instrument or any other creative tool at your disposal, because there is always another stroke, another stanza, another measure, another chapter in the work that will be forever known as you. And when you see an opportunity to engage with the arts, embrace it with all you’ve got.”   

(See the video of President Hanlon’s commencement speech.)

In his speech, Andrew Liu ’19, one of six valedictorians, offered what he called a “working hypothesis” about the path to self-knowledge: “No matter how well you think you know yourself, there is probably much more that you do not know, and you might not like the things you don’t know about yourself, should you discover them.”

Liu advised his classmates to face their flaws without overlooking positive traits.   

“Discovering ways to improve is discovering pieces of the roadmap to becoming a better version of yourself, so when you find these precious pieces of the map, try to have the courage to embrace them and use them to guide you in becoming who you want to be.” Liu said. “And if on some days you can’t, that’s fine—the important thing is striving to do so as often as you can.”  

After the singing of America the Beautiful, Hanlon awarded honorary degrees to Ma and six other recipients.

  • Richard “Sandy” Alderson ’69: former general manager and current senior adviser to baseball operations for the Oakland Athletics
  • France Córdova: an astrophysicist and director of the National Science Foundation
  • Rebecca Heller ’05: executive director and co-founder of the International Refugee Assistance Project
  • Hilary Tompkins ’90: an environmental attorney who has served as solicitor for the U.S. Department of the Interior
  • Tod Williams and Billie Tsien: award-winning architects who designed the recent renovation of the Hood Museum of Art

Students throw their caps in the air at the end of the 2019 commencement ceremony
The new graduates celebrate in the traditional way. (Photo by Robert Gill) 

Sunday’s commencement capped a weekend of celebrations and reunion activities. On Saturday, at a multifaith baccalaureate in Rollins Chapel, the keynote speaker was James Kenney ’69, executive director of Common Ground and The Interreligious Engagement Project. In the afternoon, during their commissioning ceremony, three graduating seniors received their first salutes as members of the U.S. military.

Saturday also brought investiture ceremonies at the Guarini School, Thayer, and Tuck. Class Day exercises were held June 1 at Geisel, where the speaker was Anne Schuchat, MD, principal deputy director for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Rear Admiral (Ret.), U.S. Public Health Service.

Charlotte Albright can be reached at charlotte.e.albright@dartmouth.edu.

Charlotte Albright